Promoting electric vehicles is incompatible with the development of wind and solar energy. Of course, politicians want both.

by Samuele Furfari © 2022

Republished in English with permission of the author from the French original.

On June 8, 2022, the European Parliament voted in favor of the European Commission’s proposal to ban the sale of thermal vehicles by 2035 at the latest, including vans and hybrids. Italy has managed to obtain a derogation for luxury and sports cars (Maserati, Ferrari). The Council of the EU must now adopt the proposal. The desire to do without oil and especially Russian diesel favors this decision despite the Chinese dependence which points to batteries and the materials that compose them.

Electric cars are increasingly present on our streets. Just as one immediately distinguishes a black sheep in a herd, one observes at first glance a 100% electric automobile. Remember that the electric vehicle preceded the thermal one. Henry Ford and Thomas Edison were friends and served on their respective boards. Edison was convinced that the electric vehicle would win, but he finally had to concede victory to his friend who had bet on the thermal vehicle. It was only with the development of Li-ion batteries that the electric vehicle was able to rebound. For the record,

A limited reality
It is currently a niche market, essentially driven by tax measures that benefit companies, because electric vehicles are more expensive to build and therefore to buy. The late Serge Marchionne, CEO of Fiat-Chrisler, had bluntly declared at the 2014 Detroit Auto Show “don’t buy my electric vehicles, because I’m losing 10,000 euros per car” . These benefit from various tax deductions, which are totally discriminatory vis-à-vis the population, the vast majority of whom cannot afford such expensive vehicles.

Luc Chatel, the president of the Automotive Platform (PFA), which brings together the French automotive industry, declared on BFM Business :

“  I don’t know if we will have customers for these electric cars, which cost 50% more than thermal ones. It is already difficult to sell cars today  ”.

On average in the EU, in several European countries the buyer of an electric car receives several thousand euros. This marketing opportunity gives it a green  image which is welcome given the aggressiveness towards the corporate world. We are also entitled to wonder whether all the present and announced advantages will be compatible with the deplorable state of public finances, especially since more electric vehicles also mean less sales of petroleum products and therefore less income by various taxes on them.

According to the European Automobile Manufacturers and Importers Association (ACEA), there will be 243 million internal combustion cars in 2021. As the European Commission predicts that 15 million new vehicles sold from 2035 will be electric, emissions of CO₂ from the road sector will only decrease by 2% per year. And the impact on total GHG emissions will be less than 1%. In addition, there are more than 28 million vans in circulation in the EU which will consume a lot of electricity due to the weight of the load transported. It will not have escaped you that the Parliament’s decision does not concern road transport…

ACEA considers:
“  Despite an increase in registrations in recent years, alternatively powered cars represent only 4.6% of the total car fleet in the EU. 0.8% of all cars on our roads are electric hybrids, while battery electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids each make up just 0.2% of the total .

China appreciates
In my opinion, the argument of the lack of autonomy of the electric vehicle is not admissible, because the vast majority of journeys can very well be satisfied with the current autonomy, which is growing. But other, much more serious disadvantages will curb the illusion of the European Commission and the European Parliament to impose the abandonment of thermal vehicles in 2035 : lack of rare metals, control of these by China, which makes us switch from an oil dependence towards a greater, significant loss of manpower in car manufacturing, particularly in Poland.

But as we have just said, we will still be selling thermal vehicles by 2035 for the reasons already mentioned. But if the European manufacturers, who had a technological superiority in the automobile sector, are going to anticipate the sale of electric vehicles, they are going to produce fewer and fewer internal combustion cars and it will therefore be our competitors, Chinese and Indians, who will come and sell their cheap thermal vehicles with us for those who cannot afford to buy an electric vehicle.

After the destruction of so many of our industries by the dumping of the Chinese who hardly care about CO2 emissions, this race that is too fast and without safeguards will destroy what remains of European industry. That ecologists do not worry about it is not surprising, since the less industry there is, for them, the more natural resources will be saved. But that the rest of the MEPs did not understand this elementary reality leaves you speechless.

The fundamental problem of transport electrification
The electric motor is very efficient and the energy consumption of an electric vehicle is therefore relatively low. Let’s do this calculation for the EU, but the results are similar for all member states.

There are 253.5 million cars in the EU which travel an average of 15,000 km per year. According to ACEA, there are 10 million new vehicles per year. If the 10 million sold in 2023 all became electric in a linear fashion over time, we would have 64 million electric cars in 2035. If the total number does not change, with the ban on thermal vehicles by 2035 we can estimate that ‘in 2035 there will be 64 million electric vehicles and 170 million thermal vehicles.

With a unit consumption of 20 kWh/100 km (on average between 12 and 25 kWh, less for light vehicles and more for heavy vehicles and depending on driving), the total consumption will be

0.2 × 15,000 × 64 million = 192 TWh.

Compared to the total electricity demand of the EU, which is 2900 TWh, the electricity consumed will represent 7% of the electricity consumption of the EU, which seems quite reasonable. It is only eventually that the 235 million vehicles will become all electric that consumption will be

0.2 × 15,000 × 235 million = 705 TWh

i.e. a quarter of current electricity production. But if we had to add the additional consumption in winter, the losses due to the transport of electricity and the losses on recharging , i.e. 20 to 30% in total, depending on the model and mode of recharging, we are closer to a third of current consumption than a quarter.

Even if not all of them will charge at the same time, additional overproduction capacities are certainly needed at the 705 TWh. These calculations indicate the energy that will actually be consumed, which should theoretically be produced continuously to ensure the planned mileage. When recharging, the power required is significantly higher and vehicle use is not “smoothed” over time.

The table below presents the same data for a set of countries. It can be observed that countries like Poland or even Italy will have major challenges to overcome, as their current electrical capacity is rather low compared to the possible future needs to satisfy the electrification of the vehicle fleet.

Impact of electric vehicles on the electrical system for 100% electrification of the vehicle fleet*

*Corrected. The original title of the table contained and error stating “10%”. This has been corrected to “100%”.

A significant development of electric vehicles can only be envisaged if a large number of new power stations are built. This is also essential if you want to avoid any risk of a major blackout when recharging a large number of vehicles simultaneously.

In addition, these new power plants must provide non-randomly, i.e. they cannot depend on intermittent renewable energies (wind and solar), which are particularly weak or non-existent at night, while recharges will be more likely to be nocturnal. That is to say, they will have to be either natural gas power stations or nuclear power stations (or lignite power stations in Germany since they no longer want nuclear power stations). However, we know the difficulties that the construction of this type of plant raises. In any case, for safety reasons and to avoid tripping the electrical system, arrangements must be made to supply the required power at all times, as the electrical system must be 100% reliable at all times.

During off-peak hours (from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m.), the available capacity can partly compensate for the excess power, but this requires strict control in order to avoid overloading the network. It is certainly a good thing from a macroeconomic point of view to increase the load factor, that is to say to make the power stations operate as much as possible – including during the period which is today that of “hours off-peak”, i.e. when the installed capacity is underutilized because demand is low, but this is not possible with intermittent production plants.

Admittedly, over time, a smart grid  ( intelligent networks ) will be able to meet this challenge in part, but this objective is still far from being achieved. We’ve been talking about it for so long, and nothing’s changing. In order to absorb more variable and intermittent electricity, the electricity network, although already “intelligent”, should evolve in order to be able to absorb the random nature of both electricity generation and that of demand. growing consumer. The smart grid must be accompanied by intelligent management of our consumption, that is to say, to use electricity only when the wind and the sun decide to supply it. When we observe that we have been talking about energy efficiency and energy saving for half a century and that human behavior continues to prefer its comfort, we are entitled to wonder about this possibility. In fact, we rely on information technology to compensate for human behavior which is not always virtuous, but it will only be possible to achieve this with intelligent pricing.

I have already written about this difficulty which cannot be eclipsed in order to pursue the electrification of automobile transport. A reader replied that “we can manage”. I agree, that is to say by controlling the lives of people who will only be able to recharge their car when an algorithm authorizes them to do so. We will start by trying to spread out the loads over the day, but taking into account that the vast majority of these cars will be charged at night (for convenience, but also because the demand for electricity at night is lower than during the day).

Growing demand for copper
According to PFA, in France, the 60,000 charging stations today should increase by 2030 to around one million. To supply electricity to this growing number of charging stations (private or public), it will be necessary to install new electric cables everywhere to carry the power mentioned above at low voltage in order to avoid any tripping of the electric circuit in the area concerned.

This is not a complicated problem, but it will be extremely expensive because the copper used to make the cables is expensive; it can be replaced by aluminum with larger section cables but its production, which requires a lot of electricity, practically does not exist anymore in the EU because of climate policy. In addition, streets and sidewalks will have to be opened up to install these more powerful cables. In addition, new high-voltage power lines will need to be built to transport more electricity to distribution centers. These additional costs for the electricity network must logically be paid by all electricity consumers (citizens and industries), which means an increase in the price of electricity additional to the current one. This poses an ethical problem: even people who do not drive an electric vehicle will have to pay more for their electricity. This is the reason why the Commission has proposed a Social Climate Fund which in any case will be fed by taxes and loans, that is to say by everyone.

All of this is possible. But the danger of tripping the electrical network ( blackout ) is too high to take risks. The economic consequences of such an outbreak reported by Prof. Ernest Mund are such that I strongly advise not to put the cart before the horse. The electric vehicle has advantages in terms of atmospheric pollution (SO₂ and NOx), but also geopolitical and environmental disadvantages (fine particles and CO2 at the source of electricity production if it is not nuclear energy that generates). But whatever the case, development other than niches requires the construction of non-intermittent power plants.

This is certainly not a solution to penalize oil
Although the European Commission’s proposal for a directive to abandon the internal combustion engine long predates the war in Ukraine and therefore the sanctions against Russian oil, it is obvious that the desire to do without the black gold of the ‘Urals played a major role in convincing MEPs to adopt this proposal.

But is this going to penalize world oil?

This will not be the case, because currently the EU represents only 11.5% of world oil consumption and we have seen that in 2035 there will be two thirds of cars in circulation that will still be thermal. On the contrary, less oil sold in Europe will imply more oil for those who continue to use it, which will be the vast majority of the world. Will developing countries that are barely electrified abandon internal combustion vehicles? Less than half of Africa’s population is connected to the electricity grid and those who are can only enjoy it for a few hours.

Subsidizing electric vehicles will serve to free up oil that someone else can consume at a lower price. Consequently, from a macroeconomic point of view, the banning of thermal vehicles in the EU will penalize our macroeconomics in many ways, including through a lack of competitiveness of our road transport system. The consequence of the European decision will be in addition to a very high electricity price, a subsequent penalty compared to competitors in a globalized world.

Politicians should not play engineers
In clear words, promoting electric vehicles is incompatible with the development of wind and solar energy. Of course, politicians want both, which is impossible. But they don’t bother with technical considerations.

The basic principle of a sound policy is technological neutrality. This was true for a long time at the European Commission, but since climate policy has taken precedence over all others (including agricultural policy!) strategic errors have been piling up. Need we recall the ban on shale gas of which the EU is the main importer today, the fiasco of biofuels , the price of electricity which exploded when its sharp drop was announced?

Major technological changes have never been made “on order” from the State or the EU, nor within short implementation deadlines. It took about forty years of transition between the appearance of electric catenary locomotives and the total disappearance of steam locomotives (for the record, the Belgian railway company boasted on placards in 1967 that the ” polluting train no longer exists“). The French Minitel was viable for about 25 years before completely disappearing.

As the EU automotive sector generates around 7% of GDP and employs 10% of the manufacturing workforce, the threat to the EU economy and employment (particularly in Spain and Poland) is serious, but does not seem to worry MEPs. They estimate that this job destruction will be offset by the construction of batteries. This remains to be seen, as the main components of the car (engine, gearbox, differential, etc.) are labor intensive. To think that the electric vehicle will replace the internal combustion engine as mechanics have replaced farriers is to take a big risk. Their replacement was not decreed by the state, but imposed by the market. The market should have decided whether the electric vehicle should supplant the internal combustion engine, but the race to demonize CO₂ is stronger than the market. When the market retaliates — as it is now doing given the mistakes of what should not even be called European energy policy — the EU will have to pay dearly for this strategic error for many years to come.

Samuel Furfari
Professor of Energy Geopolitics
President of the European Society of Engineers and Industrialists

Samuele Furfari’s latest works are Energy. Everything will change tomorrow? and Hydrogen Utopia